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Issues 2015 Part IV: Balancing Vision and Pragmatism

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The Timbers' success in 2015 may turn on whether Caleb Porter can find properly balance his vision for the team with tactical pragmatism.

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

It was the game that changed 2014.

Never in MLS play had the Portland Timbers so thoroughly dominated an opponent and come away with so little to show for it. They took 32 shots to their opponents’ 12. The Timbers won the possession battle by 13%. They strung together 405 passes and completed 82% of their total passes, including a dizzying 78% in the final third. The Timbers whipped 40 crosses into the box (to their opponents’ 12) and won the corner-kick battle 16 to 1. Diego Valeri crushed the MLS record with 12 chances created and logged three assists in a single game for the second time in 2014.

And yet, on September 7, 2014, the Timbers had to come back from a 2-0 halftime deficit to draw the eighth-place San Jose Earthquakes 3-3. Viewed in isolation the result was manifestly unjust. As Caleb Porter said postgame, the Timbers could’ve scored 10 goals. The Timbers let several chances go begging and Jon Busch was fantastic in an effort in which he conceded 3 goals.

But in context of the season as a whole, it was in many ways just another day at Providence Park. In fact, it was the seventh time the Timbers had conceded multiple goals on their home ground and the eleventh time in fourteen tries the Timbers had failed to secure all three points on Morrison Street.

Even more bewildering, the Timbers’ 3-3-8 record at home paled in comparison to an impressive 5-5-3 mark on the road. On the road the Timbers conceded only 1.38 goals per game, a pace that made them one of the top five defensive teams away from home. The Timbers defense in Portland, however, was second worst in MLS (only ahead of now-defunct Chivas USA and well behind the rest of the pack) at 1.93 goals-against per home game.

Something had to change.

With three games at Providence Park remaining (two against playoff-caliber teams) and the Timbers making a desperate push to get into the postseason, the Timbers’ season was destined to come to an end if they didn’t immediately fix their home-ground defensive woes.

But fix them they did. The Timbers goals-allowed in their final three home games of 2014? 0, 0, and 0. Those games represented the Timbers’ second, third, and fourth home shutouts of 2014.

What changed, in considerable part, was the Timbers’ approach to games at home. At Providence Park, the Timbers had been pressing very high. This was a strategy that had led the Timbers to a 11-1-5 record at then-Jeld-Wen Field in 2013, as Portland smothered their opposition. But this approach hadn’t been working in 2014, as drop-offs in defensive effort from the Timbers’ wingers, dominance of the defensive-central midfield, and continuity in the backline combined to varying degrees to turn what was once a strength into the Timbers’ Achilles’ heel.

Although few predicted it at the time, Caleb Porter entered the 2014 season with a flawed roster. For the first five months of the season Porter molded that imperfect roster into an imperfect team that was capable of playing with everybody at home, but seemingly had the capacity to beat nobody.

The Timbers did well to address the roster holes throughout the course of the season, and while their overall form improved through the summer, their home fortunes didn’t truly turn until Porter changed the team’s approach.

After the draw against San Jose the Timbers dialed back some of their pressure, pulled their fullbacks a little bit deeper into defense, and picked their attacking spots a bit more selectively. In essence, the Timbers started playing at home more like they had been playing on the road.

As a result, while Porter’s roster was certainly also improved, the team improved leaps and bounds. In their last seven games, the Timbers were 4-1-2 and closed the season on their best run of form all year. The remaining home games: a pair of 3-0 routs of Vancouver and San Jose and a 0-0 draw with Real Salt Lake in which only Nick Rimando heroics kept Portland from winning all three.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t enough to make the playoffs.

The Timbers lacked vision during the John Spencer era. Spencer spent his time in Portland groping for an identity with a roster assembled without any managerial vision for how those players would play. Although there was some decent talent and some good results at home, the team’s lack of identity led them to play away on their opponent’s terms. The results were predictable, the Timbers were solid at home where they imposed their will within the friendly confines of a quirky Providence Park, but were inept on the road.

All along, observers and insiders alike appeared to be searching for the answer to a fundamental question: What do the Timbers do?

Caleb Porter answered this question. With Porter’s vision, he and Gavin Wilkinson went about building a roster in Porter’s image. Around Diego Valeri, Will Johnson, and Diego Chara, the Timbers built a team designed to keep the ball, press high in defense, and create numerical advantages in midfield.

And in 2013 it worked perfectly. In the early season Porter instilled his vision on the team, leading to a little bit of a slow start but a stretch of dominance immediately thereafter. Once teams started catching on and adjusting to the Timbers’ new identity, however, Porter became a bit more pragmatic toward the end of the summer. The coach situationally dialed back the pressure and threw a few more tactical wrinkles into gameplans while taking additional care not to expose the backline.

Porter tried roughly the same approach to start 2014, ramping up the pressure and throwing numbers into the attack. The 2014 team, however, didn’t respond to that approach as well as the 2013 Timbers did. When the Timbers dialed the pressure back on the road, they were fine. But at home the Timbers exposed a questionable backline with far too much regularity to keep opponents off the board and give themselves a chance to win.

Which brings us back to the draw against San Jose. By all indications, this was Porter’s coming-to-God moment. It was the game after which Porter realized the team had to change its approach to have success at home.

But Porter made these changes too late.

By the time the Timbers changed their approach at Providence Park, the team needed to go on a strong run of form and hope for a little bit of good luck to just get into the playoffs. Portland successfully took care of the former, but got none of the latter, ultimately sealing their premature demise.

Now, it’s ludicrous to think Porter’s seat is anything but room temperature. Although he bears a significant portion of the responsibility for the struggles at home until the last three fixtures, there were other aspects of Porter’s coaching job in 2014 that were extraordinary. In particular, the team showed remarkable resolve in games in which they faced adversity. In addition, the Timbers time and again bounced back from poor performances with strong showings. Porter’s ability to keep the locker room pulling in the same direction through as many frustrations as the Timbers faced in 2014 is no small accomplishment and speaks volumes to the strength of the coach’s leadership as well as the leaders on the roster.

Also to Porter’s credit is the fact that he recognized the problem and addressed it. Although he did so too late, there are many coaches who either would have chalked up their defensive struggles simply to poor backline play or would have been too stubborn to tweak their vision. Indeed, as 2014 Sporting Kansas City and the 2013 Montreal Impact demonstrate, there are good teams every year who run up against a problem like this and never recover.

But the question remains: Will Porter find the find the right balance between his philosophical vision and pragmatism as he did in 2013, or will he struggle to find the Timbers’ tactical sweet spot like he did until early-fall 2014?

There is reason for optimism here. The core pieces from the late-2014 team that Porter had dialed-in are returning, with potential upgrades arriving to address discrete needs at centerback and in goal. Thus, it seems likely that many of the lessons of late 2014 will be applicable to the 2015 team. If Porter can manage some early-season injury absences and get the team on track using a similar approach, there is no reason to think this Timbers team won’t be a contender for a top-two spot in the West.

But, as we saw in 2014, not every year and not every team is the same. And sometimes teams are different in surprising ways. Indeed, the team in early 2014 had many personnel similarities to that which the Timbers succeeded with in 2013. It wasn’t foreseeable from the vantage of the 2014 preseason that the Timbers would need to tweak their approach just to stay afloat.  Thus, although there is reason to have faith that Porter can find the proper balance between vision and pragmatism in 2015, if 2014 taught us anything it’s that there are no certainties in this respect.

Whether Porter can once again find that balance he found after the San Jose draw, then, may be the question that decides the Timbers’ fate in 2015.